Earlier this summer I was handed a golden ticket to meet with a prominent pediatric neurologist in the Chicago area, thanks to a mutual colleague who connected us. This doctor is the kind of person who contacts you via a personal assistant who in turn gives you three choices for appointments in the entire summer, she’s that busy. I loved meeting with her. We spent an hour discussing our work, interests and contacts here and in the Bay Area, and found surprising commonalities at every turn. She is more experienced than me, having been in the field of pediatric intervention longer, and she’s incredibly wise. I would love to sit across that desk from her and discuss the complexities of my children the way her patients do.
At one point I complimented her quite sincerely on a recent blog post she had written for her institution’s web site. The topic was on the challenges so many children have, transitioning to summer vacation. This subject was near and dear to my heart as I was just coming down from the first few, very challenging weeks of summer with Lyle, and had also been discussing this issue with a couple parents of clients at work. “For some of our kids, it’s incredibly jarring to leave the comfortable routine of school and enter the no man’s land of summer,” I said. “We don’t want our clients to lose skills and yet many of them don’t quality for extended school year [summer school]. Typical camps are often too hard: big, loud, unstructured. I would love to have a year round school option.” And then I sighed, and said, “I wish there was a good solution for our kids.”
I wasn’t looking for a panacea, I know better than that. And yet – even though I know this and have said it to others myself – when this kind doctor smiled and said simply, “There’s no one solution. Every child is different. They tell us what they need, we just need to listen,” I was socked between the eyes.
Because it’s true. I flashed to Lyle the week before, crying and telling me the days at camp were too long. He was right and I knew it and I had hugged him and apologized. But still I was thinking that he’d be able to do it next year, I’d just started too early. And maybe he will, I’m not assuming that’s wrong; but maybe he won’t. I have to listen; he will tell me.
The next week I took my kids to visit a really nice after-school program. I was considering sending them there three days a week this year, a change from our usual babysitter-at-home set-up. It was a good place, the kids there seemed happy, and the staff appeared to be friendly and helpful. But it was chaotic. Turns out, summer camp there has twice the number of kids that the after school program has and it was really loud and busy. NOT a good time to take a look at the program. Lyle, who now spends more time out of his shell than in it, shrunk back. “I don’t want to go there, it’s way too loud,” he told me. “I’d rather have a babysitter at home. I like to be at home.” It didn’t matter that he hadn’t really seen the program the way it would be after school, he was very clear. And I know he does love to be home, more than anyone I know. Based on what he’d seen he was absolutely right and I told him I agreed – even though Baxter loved it, would’ve been fine there even in the busy camp scene, and was disappointed. Listening to Lyle allowed me to accept the fact that it would be far easier for me to have a babysitter at home as well, and we’ve come to a solution that will work better for all of us. He told me what he needed and I listened.
Baxter acts like the big kid he is most of the time, although he seems to move easily between his middle childhood self and a young tween. I get some pretty irritating attitude and mimicry now, and yet when I come home from work he’s still the first one (okay, right behind the dog) bounding down the hall, giving me a kiss and a really big hug. When I ask how his day was, he always remembers to ask me about mine, too. (This quality erases quite a few transgressions from his record.) At night, after we take turns reading a chapter book together (usually Junie B. Jones, because she has singlehandedly helped Lyle turn the corner into reading aloud with us) I snuggle with Lyle in his bed while Baxter reads, and then stop over to give Baxter a kiss good night and tuck him in on my way out. He recently opted for more reading time, rather than a snuggle. He’s getting older and I wasn’t surprised. But some nights he grabs my arm and holds it without letting go, even while reading. I know he still needs that Mama contact, that time together, and so I listen. I stop and cuddle in his bed with him, even though he’s reading. And after a while, when I try to leave, he will hang onto my arm like a vise to keep me there, with his nose still in the book pretending he doesn’t care. Sometimes he’ll say firmly but quietly, “Don’t leave.” He’s growing up, yes, but isn’t that when you need your parents most?
We all know it’s not always so clear-cut. I finally have two kids who can verbally express their feelings pretty consistently, making it a heck of a lot easier to listen. There were many times when I could only interpret behavior, usually negative behavior, to hear what they were saying. While not impossible, this is no easy feat and no one could possibly get it right all the time.
But the doctor’s words, delivered so gently and yet directly to me, “They tell us what they need, we just need to listen” has remained in my conscious mind all summer. They tell us, and we do need to listen to their unique, individual messages, and above all what they are saying has to be okay with us, even when it’s not what we expected or hoped for or longed for, and even though we can’t make all their dreams and wishes come true. In the end, I think that’s probably the very definition of love, isn’t it?